Posted by: dacalu | 13 July 2011

Order and Chaos

I’d like to talk this week about order and chaos. I’ll need to start with a little caveat for my scientifically minded readers. I’m not talking about scientific chaos – deterministic processes highly sensitive to initial conditions – I’m talking about religious chaos – the opposite of order. I mentioned it earlier in my post on space and the heavens. Then I was talking about intellectual cosmology; now I want to talk about emotional cosmology.

Each of us experiences a division between the world as it is and the world as we think it should be. It can be as grand as “why can’t we seem to avoid war?” or as simple as “why is my right big toe longer than my left?” We see patterns in the world about us and become disappointed when the world doesn’t fit neatly into those patterns. One might say that IS and OUGHT often fail to line up.

Two obvious solutions present themselves. On the one hand, the ought could really be the way things should be and we suffer because of some ailment in ourselves or our universe. For medieval Christians the cosmos was great and orderly, with one small planet experiencing imperfection because of the Fall – Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis. On the other hand, the is might be the only form of perfection available. We suffer because of some human tendency to want and perceive patterns where none actually exist. This matches well with the modern worldview. In the middle ages there was order everywhere but here with humans experiencing alienation because of sin. Now we think of humans as a sole brit light of reason and order in a vast expanse of chaotic (or at least uncaring) space. No order per se, only events.

I have to say, I’ve generally preferred the modern view, but I’m beginning to wonder. This week, I’m in England for the annual meeting of the society of ordained scientists at Launde Abbey. Looking up at the stars painted on the chapel ceiling, I gave some serious thought to the emotional consequences of these two worldviews. The medieval cosmos will get along perfectly well without me. What’s more, the process of finding order means settling in with the majority of the universe, living in harmony with nature and all that is. The modern universe has no such comfort. Humans as the makers and arbiters of order are fighting against nature. There seems to be a constant struggle against the forces of chaos that beset us. I started thinking about entropy (physics) and the red queen hypothesis (biology). It started to feel like endless dog paddling in a vast sea, hoping not to drown.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some serious downsides to the medieval cosmology. Namely, it tends to disempower people who feel alienated from the “natural order” of things. I don’t want to set history back 1000 years. I do want to explore what it means to us that we no longer feel the universe can get along without us. The loss of the galactic ought of Heaven, seems to have been replaced by the personal ought of Humanism – the idea that we make our own meaning and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I suspect this contributes to the avid desire within capitalism to always produce more, to constantly increase the standard of living. It also contributes to the notion of perpetual progress. If only we can know enough, make enough, have enough power, maybe we can make the world a place worth living in.

The prophets of progress (economic, social, scientific…) all call us to move ever onward and upward, without really being clear on a destination. Personally, I find it tiring. I like the Taoist notion that harmony comes not from striving, but from being at one with the surroundings. I see a profound difference between the existential belief in an ordered, friendly cosmos and a belief in a chaotic, hostile universe. The first may produce laziness, but the second must produce anxiety.

Stepping back from the question of which is true, we must ask, how do these worldviews shape us emotionally? Science may be happy with truth alone, but philosophy and theology must deal with the reality of experience. In the end, our understanding should incorporate both informative and formative notions of reality.

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